Nation Watches Arizona Witch Hunt Showdown: Exclusive Interviews With Ethnic Studies Teachers

TUSD board president Mark Stegemen's divisive new resolution would end the Mexican American Studies accreditation to meet core Social Science requirements. I interviewed MAS high school teachers to get their perspective.
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UPDATE April 27th: In an extraordinary uprising at the Tucson Unified School District board meeting last night, Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies (MAS) students chained themselves to the board members chairs and derailed the introduction of a controversial resolution that would have terminated their acclaimed program's core curriculum accreditation.

An increasingly baffled nation will watch as the long and twisted witch hunt of Tucson's Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies program takes a hasty Orwellian turn.

Despite the fact that a costly state-commissioned audit has been delayed and largely discredited, and a new federal suit has recently been filed by the affected Mexican-American Studies teachers, the once defiant Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) governing board could buckle under the state's bullying and consider a resolution that effectively castrates one of their district's most acclaimed programs.

Only months ago, TUSD officials vowed to "fight to the end" against the bizarre HB2281 law passed by the extremist Tea Party-controlled Arizona state legislature, which bans any school program that advocates the overthrow of the government. TUSD superintendent John Pedicone had defiantly challenged: "How can we be out of compliance with a law that's unconstitutional?"

That sentiment seems to have waned quickly, as Arizona's rabid state administrators ramped up threats to cut $15 million from the TUSD budget for any program non-compliance with the new law.

On Tuesday, April 26th, TUSD board president Mark Stegemen will introduce a divisive new resolution that ends the Mexican American Studies accreditation to meet core Social Science requirements.

In a remarkable display of doublespeak, the resolution seemingly makes the case for the Mexican American Studies program, noting the "traditional high school core curriculum substantially ignores the experience and contributions of many ethnic minorities," and adding that "among certain sample populations, staff analysis dated 3/11/11 shows that students who take MAS classes outperform those who do not." It even calls for increased Ethnic Studies funding, and declares that the "traditional core sequences in Social Sciences and English should be strengthened by adding a significant component which focuses on the contributions and viewpoints of Mexican-Americans and other ethnic minorities, especially in this region, to create a multi-cultural perspective."

How does the resolution propose to achieve these goals? Answer: By pulling the plug on Mexican American Studies: "Commencing with the 2011-12 academic year, the MAS courses cannot be used to satisfy the state's core Social Science requirements."

Throughout this debacle, the testimonies and evidence collected by the Mexican American Studies teachers, like the college-bound students, have largely been left out of the discussion.

The Save Ethnic Studies organization, along with MAS teachers, held a press conference on Monday, April 25th, and blasted the TUSD board resolution for "backhanded compliments and blatant misrepresentations of the facts regarding MAS's effectiveness, cost and class size."

In advance of Tuesday's board meeting, I interviewed MAS high school teachers Curtis Acosta and Sally Rusk, to get their perspective on the resolution.

JB: Prior to former AZ school superintendent Tom Horne's campaign against Mexican American Studies, did any state or TUSD official ever raise concerns about the MAS program?

CA: In our early days of establishing MAS as a quality educational program, I remember that there were skeptics and eye rolling from some district officials and site administrators. We knew that we would always have to work harder since multicultural and culturally responsive education can find resistance from those that trumpet the status quo or traditional education curriculum and models. Eventually, many of these same officials that were initially hesitant became some of our stronger advocates once they saw the type of students we were cultivating. It also helped once they saw the positive trends in our AIMS data, but I always believe that our students' will for social justice, compassion and love for all people became the key reason for this change of heart.

SR: No. I felt we were respected and supported by the district. We met regularly as a group monthly to enhance our teaching units (perfect professional development -- working with peers to better your lessons) and to brainstorm issues of retention and engagement.

JB: What is the status of your federal law suit challenging the constitutionality of HB 2281?

CA: Last week was our first hearing in federal court in which both parties agreed upon the schedule for all the pre-trial activity. It looks as if depositions will be taken this summer and the fall will be an important period where our experts will be completing the analysis of our program. Thus we will need to continue our fundraising campaign this summer to raise the money to pay for this crucial part of our defense. We will need all our Save Ethnic Studies supporters to dig a bit deeper in their pockets by visiting our website to donate or attending events. We are lucky to have a lawyer that is working pro bono, however the cost for us to be successful in defense of ethnic studies and academic freedom will not be inexpensive since we are battling against the state of Arizona.

JB: Has TUSD board governing board president Mark Stegeman or any other board members ever visited your class or sat down one-on-one to discuss your MAS curriculum and teaching?

SR: Months ago when Mark Stegeman came to Pueblo I looked for him during my planning period to encourage him to come to my classes and to talk about our program. I couldn't catch him. Michael Hicks recently visited my first period at Pueblo Magnet High School, and he spoke with me afterward (I had planning) and said the class was engaging, he learned something, and he was impressed with students and their interaction and enthusiasm. He said he supported ethnic studies but it was just certain people who he didn't trust. When I said that I was concerned about the elective issue killing our program, he said that we seemed to claim that students would of course be willing to sign up for the classes even if they were electives. Sigh. This ignores the FTE issue and the teenager issue. How could I expect the same amount of reading, homework, research papers, class presentations etc. in an elective course (if that class were even provided)?

CA: On March 25th, Dr. Stegeman visited my Latino/a literature class and we had a quick chat afterwards about his very public stance concerning changing our classes from core credits to electives. Before I address the content of that conversation, I thought the timing of Dr. Stegeman's visit to be curious since earlier that same week he had written a op/ed piece in The Arizona Daily Star that not only detailed his plan to strip our classes of their history and English credit, but he also criticized our professionalism as educators by claiming we were biased in such manner that was damaging to our students. He also said he was not comfortable in introducing himself to my students before class began since he felt that would be a distraction. I was shocked by this due to the fact that our students were aware of the pending audit by the state and TUSD, and a strange man in the back of the room scribbling on a legal pad would most definitely be a distraction to the learning environment. This was the case as my students made it quite clear that they needed to know who was in the room. I was disappointed that Dr. Stegeman was not sensitive to our students in this instance.

Regardless, Dr. Stegeman observed a fairly typical day in our class and upon the conclusion I spoke with him about his experience. He described the class as engaging and said he enjoyed his visit, so I asked him why he would be interested in changing a class that he felt was good for students. He told me that he was not changing them at all. I did not agree with this assessment since stripping our core credit status is a drastic change within a high school and told him as much. He did not agree which I still do not comprehend since our classes would be redundant if they became electives, meaning that students would need to take two history or English classes, a schedule that is not very appealing to our population, nor equitable for students who would lose precious elective choices while taking an additional English or history class.

However, what is interesting about your question is that Dr. Stegeman did not mention one concern to me about our classes, nor any reason why this was a sound decision. He simply stated that our classes were engaging and that he enjoyed his experience, which is not the tone, nor the content, revealed in his resolution or numerous op/ed pieces to the Star. I felt Dr. Stegeman was not being sincere and at times he disagreed with me about the elective issue using his college experience as a university professor to elaborate his point. Simultaneously, he dismissed the value of my opinion about how the elective status would damage our program, although I am a career public school teacher and have taught high school in TUSD for sixteen years. I felt that Dr. Stegeman was incredibly condescending at that point of our discussion and I needed to disengage in order to mentally prepare myself for my next class, which had already commenced. Our conversation lasted about 10 minutes and then he spoke with one of my students in the hallway for nearly 30 minutes. When my student returned she said it was aggravating talking with him since he does not listen.

One last note, when I asked Dr. Stegeman whether he had made a decision already in terms of our classes becoming electives, he told me that he was waiting for a report from the superintendent.

Conversely, I have had regular communication with Judy Burns and Adelita Grijalva during the last few months in particular and they have been very supportive and have done their fair share of listening to my concerns. I have also recently spoken to Miguel Cuevas and felt that he we engaged in a constructive dialogue and both learned a bit more from our conversation. All of these board members have their own ideas and feelings toward this issue, but I respect the way they listened since it was such a dramatic difference to Dr. Stegeman's visit. Michael Hicks visited Sally Rusk's class at Pueblo, but he refused overtures to meet with us (teachers in the lawsuit) in January.

JB: Do you feel the TUSD governing board has provided you enough time at their board meetings or public hearings to adequately present you and your students' data and testimony on the MAS program?

SR: Students, parents, and community members have presented during "Call to the Audience" at board meetings, but it seems that their testimony is ignored. So no... I would welcome a meeting with the board to discuss our curriculum and program.

CA: I think it is strange that Dr. Stegeman has not requested a public forum before writing such a discriminatory resolution. I am not sure if other board members or the superintendent have asked him for such an event, but obviously this has not come to pass. It seems that before asking his fellow school board members to vote on the fate of our classes, that they would want as much public discussion as possible to avoid any claims of collusion with Superintendent Huppenthal or state officials that have personal vendettas against our program.

I also think that Dr. Pedicone should have publicly insisted that such a dialogue take place and have been extremely disappointed in the stewardship of our new superintendent in this regard. Now is the time for bold and courageous leadership and not silence. My colleagues and I have formally met with Dr. Pedicone on only two occasions. First, on January 3rd when Attorney General Horne issued his findings and our alleged violation of the law, and the second time was to inform us in late-March of a pending audit from State Superintendent Huppenthal. Besides those two occasions, Dr. Pedicone has not communicated with us personally concerning any of his feelings or decisions toward our classes.

JB: What will happen to the MAS program if "MAS courses cannot be used to satisfy the state's core social science requirements"?

SR: This will kill our program. First, we do not have funding for electives classes in social studies (I had already requested years ago a senior level Chicano Studies elective -- because of student interest -- for students who did not take the class their junior year, realizing that it would have to be modified in terms of assignment expectations. My dept. head said there was no way the school could afford the FTE). Second why should students have to take two American History classes and be expected to complete meaningful and rigorous assignments for both classes? Mexican American history is AMERICAN history, and because we strive to enhance our students' understanding of history through their own experiences and the experiences of their elders, we incorporate the history of all our students. And we cover the state standards. Why should a student have to substitute an art class with another history class, IF there were even available funds to provide those classes.

CA: Plainly stated, it will begin the unraveling and dismantling of an amazing period of success for Latino students in TUSD. Our classes will become redundant and students that have not been engaged by their prior history classes or school experience will be asked to take an additional history class. This is counterintuitive since we know that many of our students in the past chose our classes as a last attempt to believe in school again, or to find a place for themselves in the realm of academia. Thus, we are asking students that have had negative experiences with school to take a rigorous core class with college preparatory objectives for an elective credit -- a credit that they should be able to use for art, theater, dance, P.E. or any other class of interest to them. It is not fair to our students to put them in this position.

JB: According to a draft resolution to be heard on Tuesday, April 26, at the TUSD board meeting, "the annual cost of the MAS program is slightly over $1 million, several times the cost of educating the MAS students in standard core classes." Do you feel this is an accurate accounting of the MAS program, and whether it takes into account desegregation funding, as well as success rates? If MAS has demonstrated higher academic and graduation rates as compared to the general student body, has an assessment ever been done to quantify the impact of drop-out rates and lower achievement to the school district?

CA: I will defer to our director Sean Arce for this one. However, I will tell you that my classes are Tucson High classes and not paid for by Mexican American Studies. I think Dr. Stegeman is using my salary and the salary of other teachers at specific sites (such as Sally and Larry) into this calculation. I find that type of accounting to be dubious if it is in fact how he arrived at such a figure.

SR: First of all, our department does not just affect students in the MAS classes. We used to have (before the "crisis") monthly professional development meetings that anyone could attend, and in those we shared lessons, units, concerns etc., so this professional development opportunity extended beyond the department teachers. The annual summer educational institute for professional development for educators provides amazing speakers (the top education presenters from conferences such as AERA) and curriculum presentations that have influenced many teachers. I have friends who have attended who say, "This should be MANDATORY for any teacher who wants to work in Arizona." It is a wonderful opportunity to hear amazing professionals in the education field who inspire teachers to make sure that their practice reaches all students and incorporates their experiences. Our goals are continued education, continued engagement. Of course anecdotal evidence is not included in statistics, but I would love administrators to read my students' journals, not only to see their amazing critical literacy, but to see the comments about deciding not to drop out or explaining their situations and yearning to do better because of what they are learning.

JB: The TUSD draft resolution also states that MAS is "strongly encouraging students in the MAS classes to participate in political activities which have a consistent partisan orientation." Do you consider that a true statement and outside the mission of MAS?

CA: This statement to me is ludicrous. I would like to know how Dr. Stegeman could possibly have known the political sensibilities and orientation of all my students. Has their been and entrance and exit exam that measures this for all our students that I am unaware of? How do we know that these students did not have such feelings before ever entering our classes? As a former teacher at University High School, I remember having some classes filled with students that skewed in one particular direction due to the relationship that they had with their parents, community and peers. Why would our classes deserve such haphazard scrutiny as this part of the resolution suggests?

I will speak about what we do in our classes, however. We overtly teach critical thinking and demand that our students challenge our viewpoints and claims in the classroom. We expect them to be members of a critical democracy and to develop their own beliefs in a systematic and scholarly manner. And above all, we expect them to take action in their community in order to create a better world toward social justice for all. Most of us call this civic engagement. I do not know why Dr. Stegeman would be so horrified by students that embody this ideology since it reflects the basic tenets of America. We are proud of cultivating students that are dedicated to these ideals.

SR: Education is political. (sorry to go off on a tangent... ) At Tucson High years ago I got a C in a political participation project because the candidate for whom I was volunteering (a Democrat) lost. Reason: "You didn't work hard enough." My history and government classes were taught by conservative Republicans. Now as a teacher when the year begins I tell my students my political biases and explain that I am upfront about this because even though I strive to be balanced, my bias will always come through, so they should be aware of this. I welcome dialogue, argument, differing opinions! That is democracy! Unfortunately, our encouraging political involvement makes people think we are forcing students to participate or think a certain way... Would that I had such influence! Wow! We are talking about teenagers.

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